August 9, 2005

What If Religion Isn't the Core Problem?

As atheists, it is easy for us to see religion as being responsible for a great many world conflicts, considerable pain and suffering, etc. But what if this is only part of the story? The more I have read on politics and economics, the more I find myself questioning whether religion is truly the central problem facing humanity. Shocked? Me too.

What if the central problem facing humanity is imperialism (exemplified by the U.S.'s continuing quest for world dominance, use of manifest destiny, heartless globalization, and the like)? We invade other countries to preserve our oil supply. We engage in covert military and economic operations to ensure that less wealthy nations will remain indebted to us and that leaders who do not favor our national interests are eliminated. Our decisions are guided by what we see as our economic self-interest and do not reflect any genuine concern for human welfare. For example, we have no real incentive to end world hunger because it gives us continued leverage over other nations.

In Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, John Perkins compares America's role on the world stage to that of a mafia don. I'd like to take this metaphor a few steps beyond where he leaves it. Imagine American imperialism as the personification of a mafia don. He is holding a double-barreled shotgun. One barrel is patriotism. A blast from this barrel and the American people start chanting "USA! USA!" waving flags, saying things like "love it or leave it," and generally acting like morons who blindly support our government no matter what it does. We are better than any other country! We deserve to have the best of everything, and screw everybody else! As an American, it is my right to drive that massive SUV and to hell with anybody who says otherwise!

The second barrel of the gun is religion. You saw that coming, didn't you? A blast from this barrel and the American people are up in arms to protect their precious "culture." But what is their culture really? Consumerism. Believe what the pastors tell you, and never ask why they are so often Republican. People from other religions are simply obstacles that get in our way. Praise god, and turn off that intellect! God speaks through Bush and Cheney, so fall in line. How are we supposed to behave after 9/11? Go shopping. By purchasing things that we have been convinced we need, we can avoid confronting any hard truths about the terrorists' motives.

Under this model, religion and patriotism are powerful tools used to maintain the power of the corporate-run government (what Perkins calls "the corporatocracy"). Maybe those of us who get so worked up over religion are missing the big picture. Maybe the real problem is how religion and patriotism are used to manipulate people to serve the imperial interests.